Today is the birthday of American writer Edith Wharton (1862-1937). Although she lived in a time when women had limited opportunities for publishing their writing, she rose to become one of America’s greatest writers. In 1921 she became the first woman to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Wharton is remembered mainly for her novels, The Age of Innocence, Ethan Frome, and The House of Mirth, but she wrote in a variety of genres and on a variety of topics, including architecture, interior design, and travel (1).
Wharton embraced life, and although much of her fiction explored its darker, more tragic sides, she was able to examine and capture life’s essence so well that her characters resonate with readers as real people. In her 1903 novel Sanctuary, Wharton wrote a memorable sentence, capturing an insight about life and the role of experience:
. . . life is the only real counselor, . . . wisdom unfiltered through personal experience does not become a part of the moral tissues.
Later, writing in her journal on March 23, 1926, Wharton wrote an entry reflecting on life. This time she juxtaposed two metaphors in attempt to capture the best definition:
Life is always a tightrope or a feather-bed. Give me the tightrope.
Edith Wharton is obviously not the first to attempt to capture the essence of life in words. Writers both past and present have attempted their definitions. Wielding a virtual Swiss Army knife of rhetorical devices, these writers take the one thing that is common to each of us — life — and reframe it, describing it in uncommon terms that allow us to see it in new ways.
Read the examples below, and notice the different ways the writers define life, using images, juxtaposition, antithesis, metaphors, and personification.
Life is not a spectacle or a feast: it is a predicament. -George Santayana
Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced. -Soren Kierkegaard
Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving. –Albert Einstein
Life is like playing a violin in public and learning the instrument as one goes on. -Samuel Butler
Life is all memory except for the one present moment that goes by so quick you can hardly catch it going. -Tennessee Williams
Life is not always a matter of holding good cards, but sometimes, playing a poor hand well. -Jack London
Life is a tragedy for those who feel, and a comedy for those who think. -Jean De La Bruyere
Life is hard, but it’s harder if you’re stupid. -Michael Crichton
Today’s Challenge: You’ve Been Assigned a Life Sentence
How would you complete the following in one or more sentences: Life is . . . ? Take your own stab at defining life by beginning with “Life is . . . “ Try to define it in a way that goes beyond the obvious so that your reader can see it in a new way. Brainstorm some ideas using analogies, metaphors, personification, or some other rhetorical technique. Then go with the one idea that you like the best and that seems the most insightful and original. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)